Sunday, August 16, 2009

Brooding Glencoe


Four months in the heavy winter of 1691. Four months in which to get the bothersome Jacobite highland chiefs to swear their unconditional allegiance to King William. The Stewart line must be kept away from Scotland.

In the halls of diplomacy and power under the new King from the continent, names such as Campbell, Hamilton, Dalrymple, Breadalbane, Livingstone and Stair saw here an opportunity to humble if not eliminate some old territorial enemies. Many stories had there been of farm raids and herd and flock rustlings.

One of the most despised of the chieftains in this political environment was Alexander Macdonald of Glencoe. Travel north-west from Glasgow and Loch Lomond toward Skye or Fort William and you will traverse his rugged estate.

Macdonald initially gave a show of resisting the order, but in the final days of 1691 capitulated and took a group of hardy men through blizzard conditions to Fort William to see Colonel Hill the Governor and take the oath. Reason appeared to have prevailed, but the Governor declined stating that the ordinance called for a sheriff or justice of the peace to handle the document and ceremony.

Nothing left but to hasten southward to Inveraray to the most likely official. Sir Colin Campbell was the man and he was out of town. Macdonald came armed with a letter of explanation and protection from Colonel Hill. The royal deadline of January first had passed. Three days later the official was available for a meeting but declined to give the oath stating that it would be out of date and void. The humble pleadings of Macdonald prevailed and on January 6, 1692 the deed was done.

Treacherously the officials up the line were disinclined to accept the oath. Old scores were going to be settled. 'Highland off-scouring deserved nothing better.' The record is unclear as to the King's knowledge of these developments.

The entire matter was given to the supervision of Thomas Livingstone who sent soldiers under Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon with "letters of fire and sword". As a hint to Livingstone how to act under the discretionary power with which these instructions vested him, Dalrymple says in his letter containing them, "I have no great kindness to Keppoch nor Glencoe, and it is well that people are in mercy, and then just now my Lord Argyle tells me that Glencoe hath not taken the oath, at which I rejoice. It is a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable sect, the worst of the Highlands."

Approach the end of the second week of February and the troops have camped near the Macdonald homestead under the premise of touring the area for supervision and enforcement of a tax levy. Various of the Macdonald families offer hospitality to the troops sharing conversation, dinners and liquid refreshment.

In the pre-dawn moments of February 13,1692, Glencoe becomes a scene of merciless butchery having few equals in Scottish history. Families in bed clothes are given the musket and sword (thirty-eight adults). Many are chased out into the hills of heavy snow to perish from the cold after the burning of their homes (forty women, children and elderly).

In the halls of power wicked men close the file, confuse the record on the Macdonald oath having been taken at all, and congratulate one another 'round the table.

Visit Glencoe today with its towering green heights and mournful mists and clouds and you will sense the brooding weight of the story.

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